When I was writing an earlier post that mentioned papyrus rolls, I realized that it was difficult to describe certain physical aspects of rolls. Here is what I wrote:
“Normally when a papyrus roll was rolled up, the text was on the inner surface of the roll, and the beginning of the text on the roll was positioned so that it would be the first thing readers encountered when they unrolled it.”
What I intended to describe was the position on the roll of the beginning of the written text (for scripts that are read from left to right). A reader would hold the bulk of the roll in the right hand, unwinding the roll into the left hand. For example, the youth depicted on this kyathos with a papyrus roll appears to be reading the beginning of the roll, grasping the end of the roll in the left hand while holding almost the entire roll still rolled up in the right hand:
As one progressed through the roll, the sections that had been read would naturally curl into the left hand as the roll unrolled from the right hand. One can see this part of the reading process in many ancient depictions. Below is an image from a sarcophagus assigned to the third century CE in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Some of the roll is rolled up in the left hand; some of it remains rolled up in the right hand:
Eventually, if a user read all the way to the end of the roll, the roll would be gathered almost entirely in the left hand, with right hand just holding the very end of the roll.
At this point, the (polite) user would “rewind” the roll so that the next user could open it up at the beginning of the text. We don’t really know the exact mechanics of this process, but Theodore Skeat has some disciplined speculation in a short article: T. C. Skeat, “Two Notes on Papyrus,” in Edda Bresciani et al. (eds.), Scritti in onore di Orsolina Montevecchi (Bologna: Cooperativa Libraria Universitaria Editrice, 1981), 373-378.
So, back to my descriptive problem: Maybe it would be best to distinguish between:
- the “inner” and “outer” surfaces of rolls
- the “inner” and “outer” portions of rolls
So, in a roll that is rolled up in the normal fashion, the text would be on the inner surface of the roll; the beginning of the text would then be both inscribed on the inner surface of the roll and positioned on the outer portion of the roll (that is, far from the center or core of the rolled up roll). The beginning of the text would not generally be the very outermost portion of the roll; that would be the protokollon, or first sheet of the roll, usually left blank and attached to the roll with an opposite fiber orientation.
I think this kind of description works reasonably well, but I’m still not totally satisfied. Is there a better vocabulary for talking about this kind of thing?